Esthero's path through the music industry really goes against the norm. Where most artists have to fight like sharks for label attention, the industry instead fought like hell for Esthero's attention. Just who is Esthero, and how the hell did a girl from a small town in southern Ontario get Andre 3000, Cee-Lo Green and Sean Lennon to guest on her new album?
Things happened awfully fast for Esthero (born Jen-Bea Englishman). A huge music fan, at age 16, she began wandering down to the town's local folk café and performing covers of Björk and Elvis Costello songs. Zak Werner (now Esthero's manager) had heard about the performances and decided to check her out one evening. He immediately signed the chanteuse, and, soon, she was courted by just about every major label in America. In 1998, after settling in with the now-defunct Work Group label, Esthero released her debut LP, Breath From Another. It was a cornucopia of musical ideas that reflected the young artist's early influences of pop, jazz and rhythm records. It also found a place in the ultracool trip-hop genre, which was the it sound at the time.
On her sophomore effort, Wikkid Little Girls (Reprise, 2005), Esthero wanted to make a record that had no continuity and, like her, was constantly changing. “It wasn't that easy to live this record or to write any of it, so I don't feel like it should be that easy for people to listen to,” Esthero says. Although she partly achieved her goal with a record that flies all over the musical map, her gorgeous voice makes it a damn pretty listen. The album has all of the good stuff that her fans have come to expect — perfect pop, poetry, jazz, hip-hop and soul — not to mention guest collaborations from Andre 3000 on “Jungle Book,” Green on “Gone” and Lennon on “Everyday Is a Holiday (With You).”
But the voice is at the crux of what makes Esthero's sound special. During the Wikkid Little Girls recording sessions, engineer Vic Florencia had to make sure that Esthero's powerful vocals sounded great while also ensuring that they did not overpower the instrumental parts. Using what he calls the “Rolls-Royces” of microphones — Neumann models U 47, U 67 and U 87 and the AKG C 12VR — he typically recorded with a moderately flat EQ and little compression. And he often used a distressor on the vocals going to Digidesign Pro Tools. Then, in Pro Tools, Florencia used plug-ins such as the Waves Renaissance equalizer to take out a lot of weight and to add grit. He also used an Inward Connections Vac Rac compressor to achieve an in-your-face tone. “There are not many tracks on the album that have a sweet, generic vocal sound,” Florencia says. “We wanted to maintain that but also make it sound hipper. That's where EQ and compression in the mix came into play.”
Esthero was also unpredictable in the studio, and when it came down to capturing her voice, Florencia made sure to sit down before the session and set up different types of mics around the studio. “Esthero is such a creative gal that we'll be working on a lead vocal, and then something will come into her head, and she'll want to try a background vocal part or a piano part,” he says. “I'd have that all set up so we could go immediately, and it kept the creative energy up.” For example, when recording a lead vocal, they typically used a U 67. But for vocal stacks on the bridge or the verse harmonies, he often set up a different mic to get a different color. “It makes a difference to have the lead vocal recorded on one mic and the nice vocal stack with a couple of different mics,” Florencia says.
After listening to Wikkid Little Girls, it's apparent that Esthero is one of the most versatile voices currently recording. No single style is attached to this artist, and that lack of predictability is incredibly sexy. It also reminds the music world that there are still artists out there who truly have the gift of voice. Florencia's job was made easier because he didn't have to manufacture anything that wasn't already there. This is the mark of a truly talented (and wikkid) little girl. Look out for a mini tour of America in the coming months.